New Era Of Deception Tactics Key To Air Force Surviving Pacific Fight
A new inflatable hangar is one example of the Air Force’s shift to deception in order not just to win, but to survive in the Pacific.
Capabilities to deceive opponents and otherwise help to conceal the movements and activities of friendly forces could be as important as physical defenses in any future high-end fight involving the United States, such as one against China in the Pacific. There has been a particular resurgence of interest within the U.S. Air Force in these kinds of capabilities as part of new expeditionary and distributed concepts of operations, which the service has been developing to reduce the vulnerability of its units in a major conflict.
The Air Force's new emphasis on deception and related capabilities was underscored by the appearance of what was described as a "prototype portable camouflage, concealment, and deception hangar" at a recent Air National Guard exercise. Nicknamed Hoodoo Sea and staged out of Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida, the training event was centered on exploring new and improved capabilities, as well as associated tactics, techniques, and procedures, for conducting various types of operations from austere environments.
"Airmen with experience working one subset of tasks will be asked to see how they can integrate on different tasks in austere environments,” Lt. Col. Lawrence Dietrich, head of the Virginia Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Squadron and commander of the exercise, said in a statement. "We’re looking forward to improving our skills and the lessons our Airmen will bring back to their units, ultimately making our Air Force a more lethal and agile force."
The Virginia Air National Guard led Exercise Hoodoo Sea, which also involved personnel from the Air National Guards of four other states, the Air Force Reserve wings, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and "other government agencies." F-22 Raptor stealth fighters operated by Virginia's 192nd Wing, KC-135 tankers from Ohio's 121st Air Refueling Wing, C-17A cargo planes from North Carolina's 145th Airlift Wing, as well as unspecified "strategic bomber aircraft," were among the participating aircraft. Puerto Rico's 156th Contingency Response Wing also hosted aircraft at Muñiz Air National Guard Base as part of the exercise.
An Airbus A400M cargo aircraft, which the U.S. military does not operate, is seen in one picture the Air National Guard released from Hoodoo Sea, which also shows the prototype hangar. It's not clear who the operator of this A400M might be or if it was at Homestead for the exercise or some other purpose.
"New innovations in agile secure communications, portable aerospace ground equipment and aircraft concealment and survival kits," were part of the exercise, according to an official release. This includes a new crew ladder for the F-22 that can be folded up and stowed inside the aircraft's cockpit. This would be highly beneficial for remote operations with minimal support.
The War Zone has reached out for more information about the hangar, the ladder, and other new capabilities being utilized during Hoodoo Sea.
It is somewhat interesting that the F-22 crew ladder has only been developed now after years of the Air Force refining a rapid deployment concept involving these stealth fighters called Rapid Raptor. This centers around the ability to deploy four Raptors to a forward location, even an austere or remote one, sometimes with a supporting aircraft of some kind (typically an airlifter or a tanker), and have the fighters conducting sorties within 24 hours. You can read more about this here.
There was also the hangar, the construction of which is at least partially made up of inflatable sections and has wheeled frames where it touches the ground that could allow it to be rapidly repositioned. The entire structure is covered in a tarp-like material, which would provide at least some general protection from the elements. This could also allow personnel to quickly swap out material with different camouflage patterns to help it blend in with the environment at any deployed location.
Depending on what the hangar's covering is made out of, it might be able to help mask the heat and other signatures of anything underneath. Anything under it would be concealed from optical sensors.
Beyond the hangar, deception, camouflage, and concealment look to have been important components of the Exercise Hoodoo Sea. The name happens to be one term for describing a section of the Western Atlantic Ocean between Florida and the island of Bermuda. This area is also home to the so-called Bermuda Triangle, where various ships and aircraft are alleged, often with only anecdotal evidence, to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Hoodoo Sea is "a fitting title since one of the objectives of our exercise is to make adversary teams lose track of our aircraft while conducting operations in and around the Bermuda Triangle," Lt. Col. Dietrich said.
It's no secret that the Air Force has concluded its big, established bases, especially those closer to potential hot spots the locations of which are well known, will be worryingly vulnerable in any future high-end conflict. After becoming head of the service in 2021, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall distilled his vision into seven so-called Operational imperatives. The fifth one of these is specifically focused on Resilient Basing.
"One of the dependencies that our competitors have come to understand is the U.S. reliance on forward air bases. We rely on a handful of forward air bases in the Western Pacific and a relatively small number of air bases in Europe," an Air Force infographic explains with regard to Operational Imperative 5. "We must deny our adversaries an easy targeting opportunity and the perceived vulnerability that a small number of known fixed locations provides."
The centerpiece of the Air Force's response to all this is a set of concepts of operations collectively referred to as Agile Combat Employment (ACE). ACE is centered on the Air Force being capable of executing irregular deployments relatively quickly to an expanded number of bases globally. This includes remote and austere facilities and the central goal of this is to make it difficult for opponents to predict and react effectively to the movement of forces, and target them, as well as mount a robust defense, as you can read more about here.
However, Kendall and other Air Force officials have made clear that these broader deployment concepts require a host of 'enablers' for them to work effectively and to help friendly units reduce their vulnerabilities. ACE "is a piece of the solution but we have to figure out exactly the investments we need to make in the mix of defenses, hardening, deception, and proliferation," the Air Force Secretary said during a talk hosted by the Center for a New American Security think tank in 2022.
“We have got to increase the number of targets that they have to try to figure out and address,” Kendall told Aviation Week in an interview on the sidelines of the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2022. “We have to figure out how to make those targets resilient.”
At that time, the Air Force was looking at "a new mix of air defenses, deception through steps such as using decoys, hardening bases and then how to either preposition critical materiel or do logistics under attack," according to Aviation Week.
Inflatable, rapidly deployable hangars like the one being employed as part of Hoodoo Sea, which can be used as real shelters, at least to some degree, or as decoys, would fit in well as part of this broader mix of capabilities. If they are capable of concealing or even creating false heat and/or radar signatures, an enemy could have an even more difficult time trying to quickly ascertain which of them might actually contain something valuable. Hostile forces would have the option of simply striking all such hangars they could find, but this would soak up time and resources — especially highly valuable standoff weapons which take time to replenish.
It is, of course, important to stress that these kinds of deception tactics, as well as camouflage and concealment tactics, are not new. Physical decoys made from various materials have been routinely employed by armed forces around the world for millennia. Inflatable vehicles and structures, more specifically, have been used in conflicts dating back to World War II.
The current war in Ukraine is one of the most recent examples of the continued use of battlefield decoys. More modern decoys and training mockups can have very high degrees of fidelity, including in how they might appear to various sensor systems.
Within the Air Force's broader ACE construct, there are indications that the service may be increasingly more interested in capabilities to conceal or otherwise disguise its movements, rather than making major investments in more traditional hardening of bases like building reinforced aircraft shelters.
"I'm not a big fan of hardening infrastructure," Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of Pacific Air Forces, the top Air Force command for that region, told The War Zone and other outlets at a roundtable on the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium back in March. "The reason is because of the advent of precision-guided weapons... you saw what we did to the Iraqi Air Force and their hardened aircraft shelters. They’re not so hard when you put a 2,000-pound bomb right through the roof."
Wilsbach continued by saying that, in his view, making hangars and other facilities sufficiently hard to withstand modern strikes using precision-guided munitions requires "inordinate amounts of resources" that could be better invested elsewhere. He specifically highlighted adding base defenses, including Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, and expanding the total number of available operating locations that forces can be dispersed to as alternatives.
This viewpoint would seem to be reflected in the current joint service plans to dramatically expand air and missile defenses on the highly strategic U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam. There were discussions in the past about possibly building new subterranean or other heavily hardened facilities, likely at great cost to support that. Now, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has decided to go ahead with a plan centered on road-mobile radars and missile launchers that can be readily repositioned instead.
In addition, the U.S. military is making significant investments in expanding airfield infrastructure on Tinian, another U.S. island territory near Guam, as an alternative operating location. You can read more about that work, which is specifically about providing a backup to Guam's Andersen Air Force Base in war and in response to peacetime crises, here.
This all being said, Secretary Kendall, as well as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, have said that hardening remains a central aspect of what the service is asking for to help with resilient basing, especially in the Pacific, in its Fiscal Year 2024 budget request.
"To support that [ACE operations], you need a combination of hardening, pre-positioning of equipment, mobility assets, defenses, deception capabilities, all of these things," Secretary Kendall told members of the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing last week. "We did a number of months of analysis to try to find the best mix of those and we put a lot of that into our budget. So, in FY24 [Fiscal Year 2024], we are in particular asking for things that would provide a measure of hardening and will provide pre-positioned equipment to support those kinds of operations."
Speaking at the same hearing, Chief of Staff Gen. Brown did mention that unspecified upgrades to bases to support "the ability to add in deception" were also components of this planned work.
It is important to remember that expanding capabilities with regard to deception, as well as concealment and camouflage, aren't fool-proof or labor-free concepts, either. For instance, hangars like the one being used as part of Exercise Hoodoo Sea still need to be deployed or pre-positioned and then erected, and all this has to be done in such a way that does not render any indented ruse ineffective.
As a prime historical example, ahead of the D-Day landings in France in World War II, the U.S. Army established a highly specialized 1,100-person unit, nicknamed the Ghost Army, to carry out a complex deception campaign to fool the Germans about the Allied invasion plans. That unit continued to provide this kind of support to Allied units after D-Day, as well.
In a future major conflict, the Air Force will need to set aside personnel and other sources to set up fake hangars like the one recently seen at Exercise Hoodoo Sea, and other decoys, among many other things, as part of any deception effort in a future major conflict. As Kendall and others have stressed, deception, concealment, and camouflage are all part of a larger and diverse ecosystem of different measures to help reduce vulnerability for deployed Air Force units.
Modern deception capabilities are an ecosystem unto themselves that goes beyond just physical decoys. The U.S. military, among others, has a growing array of tools that we know of to help conceal the activities of friendly forces and otherwise confuse and misdirect opponents using the electromagnetic spectrum, cyberspace, and information warfare.
There is no doubt that more work is being done on these kinds of capabilities in the classified realm. In its Fiscal Year 2024 budget request, the Air Force is asking for just over $26.5 million for research and development related to what is described as "Tactical Deception" and almost $4.7 million to support a "Joint Service Deception Initiative." The service's budget documents, as seen below, state bluntly that "detailed information on Air Base Resiliency remains classified and will be provided on a need-to-know basis" in the extremely brief public description of the latter line item. It does also say that this funding would help to "upgrade systems that have been fielded or have received approval for full rate production and anticipate production funding in the current or subsequent fiscal year."
The Air Force's significant renewed interest in deception and capabilities, in general, points to the fact that the U.S. military as a whole is facing the real prospect of future major conflicts filled with threats it has not had to worry about in decades. Last year, now-retired U.S. Army Gen. Richard Clarke, then head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), highlighted this broader reality when talking about the danger posed to U.S. forces by drones.
"I’ve been in the Army for 38 years, and in my entire time in the Army on battlefields in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Syria, I never had to look up," Gen. Clarke said by way of introducing the threat posed by unmanned aircraft. "I never had to look up because the U.S. always maintained air superiority and our forces were protected because we had air cover. But now with everything from quadcopters – they’re very small – up to very large unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV], we won’t always have that luxury."
PACAF head Gen. Wilsbach's comments about the threat precision-guided munitions present and what that means when it comes to physical hardening noted earlier evoked similar general sentiments.
The War Zone's Tyler Rogoway has previously laid out the general importance of "misdirection and guile" to a future major fight, in the Pacific specifically, and how the DoD needs to look towards nontraditional sources for innovation, in the following thread on Twitter:
As such, it's not surprising that old-school tactics, like inflatable decoys, together with more modern forms of deception and guile at the strategic and tactical levels, are becoming newly relevant. Rapidly deployable hangars that could serve as decoys like the one that recently appeared at Homestead Air Reserve Base, and other deception, camouflage, and concealment capabilities, look set to become an increasingly common sight at many Air Force exercises going forward.
But beyond all this, deeply integrating and coordinating the movements of decoys and real forces with information and cyber warfare, as well as a heavy heaping of cooperative electronic warfare, while also deploying some new tricks, will be needed not just to win, but to survive in a future peer conflict in the Pacific.
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